Q&A with a Gina Schaefer

127EXPERT INTERVIEW OF THE MONTH: GINA SCHAEFER

I recently had the privilege of interviewing entrepreneur Gina Schaefer, the owner of a chain of ACE Hardware stores throughout Washington, DC.

She and her husband, Marc Friedman, stand at the helm of an $11 million company. They opened their seventh store last spring — a 7,500-square-foot space at 7001 Carroll Avenue in Takoma Park, Maryland, just outside DC.

How did Schaefer get into the hardware business, and why does she hope her employees will move on? Read on to find out.

Dr. Alice Waagen: So, how did you get into the hardware business?

Gina Schaefer: We had just moved into a fixer-upper in downtown DC, as had most of our friends. We quickly learned that the only place to get tools and nails and toilets and wood was at Home Depot in DC. Or, you had to get into a car and trek out to the suburbs. I didn’t want to do that.

I didn’t even want to own a car, and actually sold it years ago. But I did want to fix up our new condo. I figured that, as the saying goes, if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain.

ACE apparently agreed with our reasoning, and within a week a representative responded to Marc’s query. A hardware cooperative based in Oak Brook, Illinois, ACE was founded in 1924 to provide a centralized purchasing organization to supply members’ stores. Even back in 2002 ACE had its act together, and I liked that.

In June 2002, we incorporated, and by March 2003, we had leased space in the heart of DC (in Logan Circle), taken a training course, and stocked the tiny store with close to 20,000 products.

Dr. Alice Waagen: I recently read an article about you that said your ultimate goal is to eventually open 10 stores. Is that right?

Gina Schaefer: That’s the goal, but with the economy and other factors at play, it’s anyone’s guess what will ultimately play out. But we really love owning these stores and are so pleased that from the first month we were in business, the local people embraced us. We’d go to a town hall meeting to introduce ourselves, and we’d get a standing ovation. It is clear that people want to shop locally, and we are more than happy to fill that need into the foreseeable future.

Dr. Alice Waagen: What do you think is the secret to your success?

Gina Schaefer: We do everything we can to treat our customers right. Equally important is how we treat our employees. My philosophy is that a happy staff is more likely to create happy customers. It’s not hard; it’s nice. And it’s good business.

Dr. Alice Waagen: I understand that you have established a training program for employees, including Eddie Foster, who was 14 when your hired him to work as an intern in the summer of 2008.

Gina Schaefer: It’s true. My managers taught him the ropes of the hardware business, explained that a smile gets you farther than a grimace, and Eddie became a star employee. Last fall, he went off to college. I felt like a proud mother. It was so great.

Dr. Alice Waagen: You also work closely with Jubilee Jobs, a DC organization that helps you find employees. Often, these candidates are working to overcome an addiction.

Gina Schaefer: Our motto is that we give second chances — sometimes more than once. I figure that if I don’t do it, who will? Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s often because people don’t have good role models. We are trying to provide that safe haven.

We hire some people who don’t have stellar employment records. Some are former addicts. Some have spent time in jail. And they all deserve a chance to improve themselves.

We honor their victories and frequently have anniversary parties to celebrate their sobriety. It’s important. They are part of our ACE family.

What’s more, about half of our employees don’t have a college degree. Yet. My goal is for all of my employees to work for us for a while, and then move on and move up. In that sense, I guess we’re somewhat of an incubator. Employees come to us, learn a bunch about themselves and how the working world operates, and then they move on. It’s how it should be. And it lets us care for more people.

Dr. Alice Waagen: What happens when you have to fire an employee?

Gina Schaefer: It’s a sad day. But the reality is that even when you do everything you possibly can, it doesn’t always work out.

Someone steals something from one of my stores every day. Sometimes it’s a customer, but sometimes it’s an employee. And it’s a fact of life in the retail business. We have up to 29,000 products in each store, and it would be tough to constantly monitor the inventory.

Knowing that there’s nothing I can do about it makes me know that I have two choices. I can do my best to keep the theft to a minimum and let the reality of this situation roll off my back — or I can dwell on it and feel stressed. Sure it makes me mad, but I try to put it into perspective. The big picture is that my customers are great, my employees are great, and that’s all that really matters.

Learn more about Gina Shaefer’s stores at www.acehardwaredc.com.

Read a profile about the good work she is doing.